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Greenwashing Glossary

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Green. Natural. Eco-friendly.

Chances are, you’ve seen these terms on a label before… and maybe even believed them, too. As society becomes more environmentally-conscious (in part due to environmental issues like climate change and air pollution), an increasing number of brands are being pushed to adopt planet-friendly practices—or to misrepresent the extent to which they are actually doing good for the earth.

This rise in public awareness—and the resulting pressure on companies to integrate environmental benefits into their business operations—has become so prevalent in recent years that there’s even a term for this kind of marketing: Greenwashing, also known as green sheen. (Even the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has guidelines on how to differentiate between what’s actually green and what’s just another form of greenwashing.) (1)

There are many examples of greenwashing, but the phenomenon is viewed as a deliberate corporate action featuring false or misleading elements designed to deceive consumers. These elements can be elusive, like using nature imagery to evoke misleading perceptions about the level of greenness, or more overt, like featuring the word ‘organic’ on a product when really, only a miniscule amount of the ingredients actually qualify. (1,2)

What makes greenwashing so tricky to spot is the fact that it’s subtle—when done well, it’s basically invisible.

What makes greenwashing so tricky to spot is the fact that it’s subtle—when done well, it’s basically invisible. “There’s no set standard, no single blanket symbol, certification, or keyword that indicates whether a product is truly ‘sustainable,’” explains Kevin Ewell, MPH, Ritual’s VP of Product Innovation. “At the end of the day, it comes down to finding transparent companies that are willing to lift the curtain into their supply chains and sourcing methods.” By doing the research, you can discover what brands are taking the time to define what these terms mean to them—and whether or not their POV aligns with yours. Here’s a simple guide to spotting the real deal.

First things first—what is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the process of making false or misleading claims about the environmental impact of a product, typically done by exaggerating implications or benefits. In other words, it could be a company trying to convey a more flattering outward impression than is warranted, possibly through misleading environmental claims.

How to spot the real thing

Look beyond the label, for one. “When it comes to production and manufacturing methods, terms like ‘green’ and ‘natural’ are virtually meaningless to me,” says Kevin.

The issue, Kevin notes, is not the fact that the industry is moving in a more socially- and environmentally-responsible direction, but that the terms are subjective and largely unregulated—and thus, may not tell the whole story. “It’s important for the industry to move in a ‘green’ direction, so to speak, but it needs to happen through the context of supporting sustainability,” he says. In other words, it’s about the absolute impact of a brand’s decisions, the holistic picture, the long game—no hidden trade-offs (or savvy marketing gimmicks) need apply.

So, what are some key indicators that a brand is trustworthy? Transparency is a great place to start. “First and foremost, the brands need to be dedicated to telling the whole story—it’s incumbent upon them to deep-dive into their decisions and what they mean for the environment and their customers,” says Kevin. “Shopping from companies that explain the reasoning behind their packaging decisions, provide a clear view into aspects of their supply chain and sourcing methods, and share insight into their formulation process can take off some of the burden.”

Greenwashing glossary

  • Natural: Without elaboration, calling something natural is meaningless—and certainly isn’t synonymous with being better.
  • Green: “It’s a subjective term,” says Kevin. “If the brand doesn’t provide a clear definition of what ‘green’ means to them, or how it relates to their formulas or packaging, there’s no context for the consumer to have an informed decision.”
  • Eco-conscious: Without specificity, this is another poorly-defined term—because it errs on the side of vagueness (what does it mean for this brand to be eco-conscious and how does that differ from other brands using the same descriptor?), a consumer may end up misinterpreting the real meaning.
  • Sustainable: Sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. “Sustainability is about more than just packaging or recycled materials. It goes beyond the tangible finished product,” explains Michael Houston, Ritual’s Senior Director of Package Engineering and Sustainability. “It’s about assessing the big picture—how the systems are managed, and how the choices we make impact the ecosystem at a macro level.” (3)

The essential takeaway

Bottom line? When it comes to navigating the intersection of sustainable products and green marketing, it’s worth taking the time to find brands that are truly paving the way—the ones that provide insight into their decision-making processes (including sustainable practices) as the journey unfolds.

Kevin suggests doing a little extra research to align with brands that are transparent. “The ones taking initiative to say, ‘This is the material we use, this is how it’s sustainable, here are the ingredients in our products, here are the companies we’re working with, here’s why we believe this is the best choice.’ Then, you can decide whether their perspective aligns with yours.” (Another reason Traceability is so important.)

References:

  1. Federal Trade Commission. (2012). Green Guides. U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
  2. de Freitas Netto, S.V., Sobral, M.F.F., Ribeiro, A.R.B. et al. Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review. Environ Sci Eur 32, 19 (2020).
  3. United Nations. (1987, October). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Oxford University Press.

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Meet Our Experts

This article features advice and has been reviewed by members of our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Kevin

Kevin Ewell, MPH, VP, Product Innovation

Kevin Ewell received his MPH at Rutgers University where he researched the safety of personal care products. He has worked with prominent companies, including The Honest Company, J&J, Unilever and Estee Lauder. He has over twelve years of R&D experience in the personal care space and is inventor of several patents related to cosmetics and household cleaning.

Science Thumb — Kevin

Kevin Ewell, MPH, VP, Product Innovation

Kevin Ewell received his MPH at Rutgers University where he researched the safety of personal care products. He has worked with prominent companies, including The Honest Company, J&J, Unilever and Estee Lauder. He has over twelve years of R&D experience in the personal care space and is inventor of several patents related to cosmetics and household cleaning.

Michael Houston

Michael Houston, Senior Director of Package Engineering & Sustainability

Michael Houston received his B.S. from Tuskegee University where he specialized in mechanical engineering with a focus on material science. An experienced packaging engineer and innovator, he has more than 17 years of experience working at leading Fortune 500 companies and start-ups, from Procter & Gamble and J&J to The Honest Company.

Michael Houston

Michael Houston, Senior Director of Package Engineering & Sustainability

Michael Houston received his B.S. from Tuskegee University where he specialized in mechanical engineering with a focus on material science. An experienced packaging engineer and innovator, he has more than 17 years of experience working at leading Fortune 500 companies and start-ups, from Procter & Gamble and J&J to The Honest Company.

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